Preaching to the Choir

Image from
Image from

I just re-stumbled across an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker Magazine about the feebleness of online activism. I’ve found myself having similar discussions over and over with friends here in Indonesia and also in Australia for the past three or four years now. About the feebleness and superficiality of social media activism on one level, but also the possible links between seeming decline of physical activism and the rise of social media activism (or clicktivism as it’s often called).

In the year between the end of high school and the beginning of university, I spent a lot of time engaged in non-violent direct action at a forest blockade in East Gippsland. The area was eventually recognised by the government as requiring protection because it was a water catchment area, which was what the activists organising the campaign had argued all along.

I feel that if we had the monolithic forms of social media that we have now I don’t believe this task would have been made any easier, nor would the process have been any more rapid. In fact, I doubt the movement would have had the success it did.

The campaign process, along with non-violent direct actions in the forest areas which were at threat from logging were concerted campaigns over years and involved a dedicated movement of people with structure and roles to ensure the battle to protect the forest was being waged on multiple fronts. From policy, to the physical protection of the forest, to gaining public support.

We also engaged and lobbied industry, the CSR sector, and sometimes used street art as a tool (as you can see in the image below, the work one of my old housemates and fellow campaigners).

My old housemate scaled this smokestack and painted it as part of our idealistic street art campaigning vision. he was arrested for it. Image
My old housemate scaled this smokestack and painted it as part of our idealistic street art campaigning vision. It was dangerous, probably very silly, and he was arrested for it. He’s now an environmental scientist at Melbourne University and focusses his concerns about environmental issues through other channels. Image

We did this also in an alliance with several organisations and groups with interests in preserving this water catchment area.

After a few months in the forest I found that frontline activism was hard for me, and that in turning 18 I probably didn’t want to get an adult criminal record, so I joined to government lobbying and political pressure side of the forest campaign world. What I learned from all of this as a young person is that activism works, especially when it is engaged with the real world and approaches problems with realistic goals and measures.

What I see increasingly now though is the rise of the online armchair activist. Always, alwaaaays sharing the problems of the world with their social networks, engaging in hashtag chittering and chattering online about the latest moral outrage of the world. Always preaching to the frigging choir.

Gladwell makes some pretty good arguments about why social media driven activism might not be all its’ hyped up to be.

Basically, that effective “activism” is fought mostly in the physical world. Historically and also in the present.

He notes the reasons social media activism is so appealing mostly for the “feel good factor”, and that social media activism only appears superficially to work “because it doesn’t ask too much of you”.

Clicking, liking, sharing and so on “doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise”.

“Activism that [actually] challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart. But in the outsized enthusiasm for social media, we seem to have forgotten what activism is”.

“Social Media activism does not motivate people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivates them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”.

“We are a long way from [sit-ins of] the lunch counters of Greensboro”

Read the article “Small Change: Why the revolution Will Not be Tweeted” here –

Jokowi-JK: The Power of Political Participation and Civic Volunteerism

Jokowi with hundreds of thousands of supporters, the last campaign at Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta. Image:
Jokowi with hundreds of thousands of supporters, the last campaign at Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta. Image:

An interesting factor to have come out of the 2014 Presidential Campaign has been the power of the various citizen-led campaigns through which the Jokowi-JK campaign was promoted, showing that political volunteerism in Indonesia has emerged as a powerful political force in the 2014 Presidential Election.

As Fahd Djibran explains, “thousands of volunteers carried the Jokowi-JK message, ranging from the celebrities, activists, religious leaders to ordinary citizens”. Also interesting was the phenomenon of voluntarism among celebrities, as Djibran elaborates, “in Indonesia such figures are usually employed as “paid players”, but in the instance of the Jokowi-JK campaign they voluntarily participated in campaigning and devoted themselves in a more ideological capacity, and prove to themselves that they are not merely campaign “sweetener”s or “cheerleaders” alone”.

The Support of Indonesian Artists

Jokowi Pictured with Rock Band Slank. Image
Jokowi Pictured with Rock Band Slank. Image

The music group Slank was among the ranks of volunteers behind the Jokowi-JK campaign. A rock group estimated to have more than 8 million followers in Indonesia, or nearly 5% of the population of Indonesia, their followers are known as “Slankers”.

Although there is no exact data about the number of “Slankers” in Indonesia, the official membership of Slankers registered in 98 cities in Indonesia amounts to more than one million members. Slank mobilised the support in the ranks of their fans to promote the Jokowi-JK message, and also on a voluntary basis. The rock group also wrote a song and organised a concert in support of the Jokowi-JK campaign.

Other celebrities involved in the Jokowi-JK campaign also include Glen Fredly, JFlow, Cak Lontong, Oppie Andal, Olga Lydia, Crossfade, Tompi and SID working in the area and the ability of each to support Jokowi-JK.

“Salam 2 Jari” Concert

Last Sunday, more than 100 artists and musicians held the event “Salam 2 Jari” to promote the Jokowi-JK campaign. The artists invovlved were not asked to do so by the Jokowi-JK campaigners. The event was orgnaised soleley in support of the Jokowi-JK campaign, and shows a growing awareness and willingness amongst Indonesians to engage actively in the democratic process.

The emergence of this kind of voluntarism in the context of politics in Indonesia reveals the development an exciting new phase in Indonesia’s democratic story.

The activism of Indonesian civil society against the slick campaigns of Indonesia’s political elite shows that democracy is the real winner here, and heralds a new era of political engagement by the people of Indonesia.

Read more analysis and discussion at


We Have Banksy…Now What?

How can you criticise human rights activism? It’s kinda like kicking a puppy, isn’t it? But I feel compelled to talk about activism critically, after reading this piece written by Manus Island whistleblower Liz Thompson.* In it she articulates why she recently declined a profile speaking gig at refugee support rally; and her concern about “lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people” in the “refugee movement” which is now dominated by white faces.

The revelations Thompson made about the situation at Manus Island were obviously important, particularly given the military-style secrecy shrouding the implementation of the policy. But her refusal to hog the spotlight at the expense of those directly affected by the policy is remarkably rare, and that this should be the case is something we should be talking about.

Thompson was criticised by many for the points she made in the piece –  her discomfort at the ‘”refugee movement’s” celebration of her as a whistleblower, and the need for those in the movement to examine their privilege. But this is an attitude, which I’m finding increasingly uncommon in the world of activism: humility and a focus on what it is that activism and advocacy is trying to achieve. So, I’d like to add to this conversation, and talk a bit about ego and Personal Branding, which is now so pervasive in activism today. And I think we need to talk about this, because ultimately this endemic narcissism really is shutting down our ability to effectively orgnaise.

At its very core, activism is about social and political change. History’s greatest activists have focused on the issues, not themselves. But these days I find it hard to ascertain the  motives of activists. Are they working towards the achievement of social change, or towards the enhancement of their LinkedIn or twitter profiles? Too often it seems the ingredients for activism are 80% narcissism, 20% organising skill, ethics and the rest. It’s more about the activist – their good deeds and heroicisms, and promoting said heroicisms on behalf of the organisation they represent.

Damn, this really does feel as terrible as kicking a puppy, really, but it needs to be said. Speaking out against human rights abuses cannot be a get out of jail of free card for your own indiscretions. And solidarity cannot be absolute, especially when it allows bad-faith to infiltrate and compromise objectives. That it has become so difficult to distinguish between activists working towards social change, and those using particular issues as a professional branding opportunities is extremely problematic  –  and we need to deal with it.

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a thriving cohort of activist types here, and  regularly hear tossers refer to “human rights being their thing”, being “largely interested in gender issues”, “environmental something or other”, blah blah blah [insert one of the innumerable things the world is worried about] being “their thing!” I’m now thirty and have only been around the activist community for ten years or so, and this shift has crept up on us somewhere in the last decade. No doubt it was a thing before this, but it now appears to be the dominant trend.

So, let’s get things straight. A plight is not a project. Human and societal failings are not areas of expertise to develop as your “thing”. A tragedy like that of the shooting death of a young on Manus Island is NOT a political or personal branding opportunity nor should it ever be.

This crap is happening at the personal level, but it also permeates organisations, campaigns and political processes. I witnessed with unease, the launch of the #withSyria campaign featuring the massive persona and artistic imagery of Bansky – a privileged (probably) white male. So loud is Banksy, and the calls to “join Banksy” that the  #withSyria campaign is bereft of a genuine Syrian voice, and completely smothers the dedicated and often dangerous work of Syrian activists.

The cultivation of narcissism has slowly but surely crept into activist movements over a number of years, until here we are, dominated by privileged white noise. So what is going on? I suspect it probably does have something to do with the online profiling thing, and the feedback loop thing that academics and psychologists talk about (just bear with me here).

Existing in the online world has necessitated the cultivation of online presence and branding of our personas. And it seems, everybody who wants to be a fucking hero these days can and will be. The instant affirmation of “likes” and clicks has become a breeding ground for narcissists. We are stuck in feedback loop in which such attention-seeking behaviors are rewarded with online flattery and attention –  thus perpetuating the cycle. Witness the selfie culture now adopted by activists: endless posts about their latest campaigns, and snaps with the “poor people” they claim to represent are now instantly rewarded by other chumps part of the same selfish movement. A system of perpetual buddy-praise  – and we are conflating these virtual pats on the back with purpose and efficacy.

Amid all  the energy being focused on the online sphere and all that fucken hot air and naval gazing that comes with it – it seems there are really very few examples of provocative and actually effective campaigning around today. There are campaigns, sure. But effective? As in, contributes in a measurable and meaningful way? We are #standingwithsyria –  but how will this influence the political climate, the arms deals, how will it end the tyranny of vested interests and give rise to a peaceful inclusive Syrian future? We have Banksy…now what?

I argue, that there needs to be a comprehensive reassessment about our goals, and long hard consideration about the efficacy of our activism. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems like a LOT of the efforts of the past few years have been bloody useless. So, I guess what I’m saying is that when activist involvement causes confusion of motive, gives rise to fragmentation, or if it actually achieves very little of the intended social or political change – there needs to be a point at which activists take a big step back (and I’m looking at you privileged white folks here, but bad-faith comes in many guises). We need to have a long hard think, and to know when to sit the fuck down – because surprising as it may seem, at the end of the day it’s not actually about us, or the organisations we represent. If we want genuine social, political and economic change as profound as we claim – we need a fucking shake-up.

-Kate Grealy, @kategrealy

*A brief recap for those who don’t know: Australia’s system of exporting all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to a remote detention facility on Manus Island in PNG is largely staffed by contracted workers (and is operated by a private corporation). Liz Thompson was a contracted migration agent, and was sent to Manus Island to process asylum seeker claims. This process would, if genuinely intended to actually resettle refugees, would in fact result in resettlement. But Australia’s current policy is to deny resettlement here, and it will be effectively denied in PNG, because their cannot resettle them. Thompson was shocked at the directives to be willfully misleading in her work with the asylum seekers, and so decided to blow the lid on the farce of a “processing” system currently in place. She confirmed suspicions held by many, that “processing” simply involves paying contractors to provide asylum seekers with vague allusions to resettlement, while omitting the detail that resettlement is in actuality an impossibility with things being as they are. – Ed.

 Original Article “We Have Banksy, Now What?” on Sassmouth, Monthly Smart Arsed Feminist Reader